DOHNANYI: Winterreigen / 6 Piano Pieces / 3 Singular Pieces
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Ern?¢o Dohnányi (1877-1960)
Piano Works, Volume 2
Like Rachmaninov, the composer-pianist Erno?¢ Dohnányi (who later Germanicized his name to Ernst von Dohnanyi) was largely ignored by the musical establishment during his lifetime. In both cases, an unashamedly Romantic style was viewed by the so-called cognoscenti as an irrelevant anachronism in the heyday of such modernists as Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Rachmaninov, however, could claim the satisfaction of phenomenal popular adoration, while this was not true for Dohnányi outside his native Hungary.
Today, the only works of Dohnányi that are considered part of the standard repertoire are the Variations on a Nursery Song for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 25, and the Serenade in C major for String Trio, Op. 10. His solo piano music is widely neglected in modern concert life, a fact very much at odds with its merit. The dazzling Capriccio in F minor, Op. 28, No. 6, was once a popular encore, but even this has faded from active use.
The pieces on this recording span 55 years of the composers life. Although his style has repeatedly been characterized as faux Brahms, it is only in the works of Dohnányis earliest period that one finds this obvious emulation. The repertoire included here reveals not only an original voice, but in fact a series of remarkable stylistic changes over the course of time. This evolutionary factor is quite striking, and yet Dohnányis signature traits are clearly in evidence at every stage, a warm, Romantic lyricism, a captivating and original harmonic sense, a distinctive flair for virtuoso piano writing, and an individual musical sense of humour.
The Capriccio in B minor, Op. 2, No. 4, is an early work clearly reflecting the twenty-year-old composers idolisation of Brahms, who knew and encouraged the young Dohnányi, with a dash of Liszt thrown in for good measure. While certainly derivative, this is nonetheless an exciting, skilfully integrated virtuoso show-stopper that offers a genuinely stimulating musical experience.
With the Winterreigen (Winter Dances), Op. 13, we encounter an unmistakable stylistic transformation and an infinitely more subtle poetic vision. This collection, subtitled Ten Bagatelles, was written eight years after the Capriccio and was in fact inspired by a poem:
Now let, oh let us forget todays sorrows,
The cold, star-bright night is listening,
And in the sounds magic spell
Let us listen for far-away dreams!
Dipped in the gold of memories
Rise in new splendour, you, hours of festivity,
As joyful moods soon chase away the veils of sorrow,
Which shroud the happiness of our existence!
Rise in new splendour, you, joyful city on
A soft, jubilant chord!
Friends, swiftly let us join in the wild carnival dance!
You worried people, do not scold us:
Noble minds make nobility their virtue everywhere.
A beautiful fairy tale dream!
Dont slip away, you colourful images!
Ha! are you bubbling again, intoxicating,
A warm vital part of my youth, my memories
Which soft note signals the end?
By the piano, deep in thought, my girl friend turns
Out of a volume of Schumanns Dance Works
Falls the wilted petal of a dark red rose
Translation: Ilse Weber
It is easy to forgive such an evocative author the poetic licence of inventing Schumann Dance Works. He may possibly have been thinking of the Davidbündlertänze, which is really a single sub-divided work. In any case, a warm, Schumannesque intimacy does permeate this entire musical cycle, and each separate piece of the Winterreigen bears an inscription to a different friend of the composer. Although the very personal atmosphere and poetic strategy clearly communicate Dohnányis homage to Schumann, they are conveyed through a harmonic chromaticism that actually shows the influence of Wagner and perhaps even Richard Strauss.
Widmung (Dedication) is a brief mood-setter, and is based entirely on ingenious transformations of themes from the opening of Schumanns Papillons, making the identity of the dedicatee undeniable. The catchy, high-spirited Marsch der lustigen Brüder (March of the Merry Comrades) cleverly avoids predictability through the use of intriguing harmonic twists and turns. Throughout its brief duration, An Ada (To Ada) insistently repeats the melodic notes A-D-A, within a mood of sorrowful longing. Could Ada have been an old flame? Marked Mit Humor, Freund Victors Mazurka (Friend Victors Mazurka) ranges from mock-serious to pseudo-suave, but its droll comedy somehow seems a remote recollection. The title of the longest piece in the set, Sphärenmusik (Music of the Spheres) might tempt one into lofty thoughts of Pythagoras, with his interest in the mathematics of both heavenly bodies and music theory. It turns out, however, that the piece was inspired by a friend who took Dohnányi for a ride in a hot-air balloon. Valse aimable (Friendly Waltz) is a highly chromatic, almost impressionistic utterance of exquisite delicacy. Um Mitternacht (Around Midnight) is dedicated to a friend named Aujust. In the midst of the rather eerie scurrying about, a symbolic two-chord motif is introduced, above which Au - just is actually written in the score. The phenomenally difficult Tolle Gesellschaft (Great Company) is a hilarious bout of musical insanity designed to send pianists to the emergency room. As if to twist the knife into the pianists wound, Dohnányi asks the performer to accelerate ever so gradually for about half the piece. Built from a single, quite silly motif, this piece owes much of its fascination to its wonderfully ingenious, ever-unpredictable harmonic coloration. A severe contrast is effected by Morgengrauen (Dawn), a solemn, pensive work punctuated by a repeated-octave figure in irregular rhythm, perhaps representing the ringing of church bells. The fact that the dawn is depicted near the end of the ten pieces, following the wild revels of Tolle Gesellschaft, seems to imply that the cycle was meant to be presented as a whole. The concise Postludium suggests possible inspiration from the opening of Schumanns Fantasia in C major, although a distinct Wagnerian influence is also apparent. In a final reference to the Heindl poem, Dohnányi ends with the melodic notes A-D-E, adding emphasis by writing the letters themselves above the notes in the score.
The Six Piano Pieces, Op. 41, were written forty years later, when Dohnányi was 68 years old. In the intervening years, his musical vocabulary had widened. During a particularly adventurous period, he had incorporated Hungarian folk material in his Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song (1920) and Ruralia Hungarica (1923), piano works in which he used impressionistic textures, long-held pedal, imitations of the Hungarian cimbalom, modality, and five-eight metre. What was adventurous for Dohnányi, of course, was positively archaic to proponents of the twelve-tone technique and other futuristic twentieth century trends, but this, after all, was a composer who had actually known Brahms. In these six markedly contras